There was in this age at the court of Cosimo a man who united in his character all the violence and sensitivity, all the mad pursuit of beauty in life and art, all the exhilarating pride of health, skill, or power, that distinguished the Renaissance; who, moreover, possessed the spontaneous capacity to pour forth his thoughts and feelings, vicissitudes and accomplishments, in one of the most engaging and unforgettable of all autobiographies. Benvenuto was not—no one man could be—completely typical of the Renaissance genius; he lacked the piety of Angelico, the craft of Machiavelli, the modesty of Castiglione, the blithe suavity of Raphael; and surely not all Italian artists of the time took the law into their own hands as Benvenuto did. Yet, as we read his turbulent narrative, we feel that his book, more than any other, more even than Vasari’s Lives, takes us behind the scenes, and into the heart, of the Renaissance.
He begins disarmingly:
All men, of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand; but they ought not to attempt so fine an enterprise till they have passed the age of forty. This duty occurs to my own mind, now that I am traveling beyond the term of fifty-eight years, and am in Florence, the city of my birth.
He is proud that he was “born humble” and made his family famous; at the same time he assures us that he was descended from a captain of Julius Caesar; “in a work like this,” he warns us, “there will always be found occasion for natural bragging.”35 He was called Benvenuto—welcome—because his parents expected a girl and were pleasantly surprised. His grand father (probably violating all of Cornaro’s precepts) lived a hundred years; Cellini, inheriting his vitality, crowded as many into seventy-one. His father was an engineer, a worker in ivory, and a devotee of the flute; his fond hope was that Benvenuto would become a professional flutist and play in the band at the Medici court; in later years he seems to have derived more pleasure from hearing that his son had become a flutist in Pope Clement’s private orchestra than from the goldsmithery by which the youth was earning florins and fame.
But Benvenuto was enamored of beautiful forms rather than of melodious sounds. He saw some of the work of Michelangelo, and caught the fever of art. He studied the cartoon for The Battle of Pisa, and was so impressed by it that even the Sistine Chapel ceiling seemed to him less marvelous. Against his father’s pleading he apprenticed himself to a goldsmith, but in filial compromise he continued to practise the hated flute. In Filippino Lippi’s house he found a book of drawings representing the art antiquities of Rome. He burned with desire to see those renowned exemplars with his own eyes, and often he talked with his friends about going to the capital. One day he and a young woodcarver, Giambattista Tasso, walking aimlessly and talking passionately, found themselves at the gate San Piero Gattolini; Benvenuto remarked that he felt himself already halfway from Florence to Rome; on a mutual dare they walked on, mile after mile, until they reached Siena, thirty-three miles away. There Gian’s feet rebelled. Cellini had money enough to hire a horse; the two youths rode the one animal, and, “singing and laughing, we traveled the whole way to Rome. I had just nineteen years then, and so had the century.”36
In Rome he found work as a goldsmith, studied the ancient remains, and earned enough to send his father consolatory sums. But the doting father pled so earnestly for his return that after two years Benvenuto went back to Florence. He had hardly domiciled himself there when he stabbed a youth in a quarrel. Thinking he had killed him, he fled again to Rome (1521). He pored over Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s in the Villa Chigi and the Vatican; he noted all interesting forms and lines in men and women, metals and foliage; soon he was the best goldsmith in Rome. Clement took to him first as a flutist, then discovered his excellence in design. Cellini made such handsome coins for him that the Pope appointed him “stamp master of the papal mint”—i.e., designer of currency for the Papal States. Each cardinal had a seal, sometimes “as large as the head of a twelve-year-old child,” which was used to impress the wax that sealed a letter; some such seals were worth a hundred crowns ($1250?). Cellini engraved seals and coins, cut and set gems, modeled medallions, enameled cameos, made a hundred varieties of objects in silver and gold. These “various departments of art,” he writes, “are very different from one another, so that a man who excels in one of them, if he undertakes another, hardly ever achieves the same success; whereas I strove with all my power to become equally versed in all of them; and in the proper place I shall demonstrate that I attained my object.”37
Benvenuto brags on almost every page, but with such consistency and ardor that at last we come to believe him. He speaks of his “fine physiognomy and bodily symmetry,” and we cannot deny it. “Nature bestowed on me a temperament so happy, and of such excellent parts, that I was freely able to accomplish whatever it pleased me to take in hand.” Among these pleasant objects was “a girl of great beauty and grace, whom I used as a model.… I used frequently to pass the night with her…. After indulgence in sexual pleasure my slumber is sometimes very deep.”38 From one such slumber he woke to find himself host to the “French disease.” In fifty days he was cured, and took another mistress.
We glimpse the lawlessness of Italian city life in the sixteenth century when we note with what easy conscience Cellini overrode the commandments of Church and state. Apparently the policing of Rome was lax and fragmentary; a man of strong instincts could be—sometimes had to be—a law unto himself. When provoked Benvenuto “felt a fever” which “would have been my death had I not resolved to give it vent”;39 when offended “I thought I ought to act as well as intone my misereres”40 He fell into a hundred quarrels, and, he assures us, was in the right in all but one. He stuck a dagger into the neck of one offender, and with such matador precision that the man fell dead.41 In another case “I stabbed him just beneath the ear. I gave him only two blows, for he fell stone dead at the second. I had not meant to kill him, but, as the saying goes, knocks are not dealt out by measure.”42
His theology was as independent as his morality. Since he was always right (but once), he felt that God must be on his side, giving more power to his arm; he prayed to God for aid in his murders, and gave Him due credit for his success. However, when God failed to answer his prayers to help him find his lost love Angelica, he turned to devils for supplementary aid. A Sicilian sorcerer took him to the deserted Colosseum at night, drew a magic circle in the ground, lit a fire, sprinkled perfumes on the flames, and with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin invocations summoned demons to appear. Benvenuto was sure that hundreds of phantoms rose before him, and that they predicted his early reunion with Angelica. He returned to his house, and spent the rest of the night seeing devils.43
When the imperial army sacked Rome Cellini fled to the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and served as a gunner; it was one of his shots, he avers, that killed the Duke of Bourbon; and it was his expert marksmanship that kept the besiegers at a distance from the Castle, so saving the Pope, the cardinals, and Benvenuto. We do not know how true this is; but we have it on the same authority that when Clement returned to Rome he made Cellini a mace-bearer with a salary of 200 crowns ($2500?) a year, and said: “Were I but a wealthy emperor, I would give Benvenuto as much land as my eyes could survey; yet, being now but a needy bankrupt, I will at any rate give him bread enough to satisfy his need.”44
Paul III continued Clement’s patronage. Probably exaggerating to his heart’s delight, Cellini quotes Paul as saying, to one who protested his lenience with the artist: “Know then that men like Benvenuto, unique in their profession, stand above the law; and how far more, then, he who received the provocation I have heard of.”45 But Paul’s son Pierluigi, as reckless a rascal as Benvenuto himself, turned the Pope against the artist. Even Cellini’s arts proved inadequate to overcome such influence, and in 1537 he abandoned his shop in Rome and made for France. On the way he was handsomely entertained by Bembo at Padua, made a small portrait of him, and was in return presented with horses for himself and his two companions. They mounted and descended the Grisons, and rode through Zurich, Lausanne, Geneva, and Lyons to Paris. There too Benvenuto found enemies. Giovanni de’ Rossi, Florentine painter, wanted no more rivals for the King’s money; he put difficulties in the way of the newcomer; and when at last Cellini got to Francis he found him inextricably tangled in war. III and homesick, he climbed back over the Alps, made a pilgrimage to Loreto, and crossed the Apennines to Rome. To his dismay he found himself accused by Pierluigi of having embezzled papal jewelry. He was flung into the same Castello that he had helped to save, and suffered months of imprisonment. He escaped, but broke a leg in the process; captured, he was confined in an underground dungeon for two years. He was released at the request of Francis I, who now urgently solicited his services in France. Once more he clambered over the Alps (1540).
He found King and court at Fontana Belio—i.e., Fontainebleau; was warmly welcomed, and was assigned a castle in Paris for his workshop and home. When its occupants refused to leave he expelled them by force. The French did not like his manners or his language, and Mme d’Étampes, the King’s mistress, resented Cellini’s lack of courtesy to her high estate. When she heard how he had thrown out of the castle windows the furniture of the tenants whom he had dispossessed, she warned Francis that “that devil will sack Paris one of these days.”46 The merry monarch enjoyed the story, forgave Cellini’s violence for his artistry, and paid him 700 crowns a year ($8750?), 500 more for the expenses of his trip from Rome, and promised an additional sum for each work of art that Cellini should produce for him. Benvenuto was proud to learn that these were the same terms that had been given to Leonardo twenty-four years before.47
One of the dispossessed tenants sued him in court on a charge of stealing some effects. The court decided against Cellini. He reversed the judgment in his own striking way:
When I perceived that my cause had been unjustly lost, I had recourse for my defense to a great dagger which I carried; for I have always taken pleasure in keeping fine weapons. The first man I attacked was the plaintiff who had sued me; and one evening I wounded him in the legs and arms so severely, taking care, however, not to kill him, that I deprived him of the use of both his legs.48
Apparently the plaintiff dared not press the matter further, and Cellini could turn his energies to other outlets. He had in his Paris studio “a poor young girl, Caterina; I keep her principally for my art’s sake, since I cannot do without a model; but being a man also, I have used her for my pleasure.”49 However Caterina, with yielding largesse, slept also with his helper, Pagolo Micceri. Benvenuto, learning of it, beat her till he was exhausted. His servant Roberta reproved him for punishing so violently so ordinary an incident; did he not know that “there’s not a husband in France without horns”? The next day he modeled from Caterina again, “during which occurred some amorous diversions; and at last, on the same hour as on the previous day, she irritated me to such a pitch that I gave her the same drubbing. So we went on for several days, repeating the same round…. Meanwhile I completed my work in a style which did me the greatest credit.”50 Another model, Jeanne, presented him with a daughter; he settled a dowry on the mother, “and from that time I had nothing more to do with her.”51 The child was later smothered by its nurse.
Francis bore patiently with all this lawlessness; but finally Benvenuto had so many enemies in Paris that he begged the King’s permission to visit Italy. Consent was not given, but Cellini took French leave, and, after an arduous trip, found himself in his native Florence (1545). There he showed a better side of his nature, contributing materially to the support of his sister and her six daughters. He found Cosimo less openhanded than Francis. He made the usual enemies, but he cast a good portrait bust of the Duke (in the Bargello), and produced for him his most celebrated work—the Perseus that still stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi. He tells a vivid story of the casting. His anxieties, toil, and exposure to heat and cold culminated in a severe fever that compelled him to take to his bed just when the furnace that he had designed especially for this work was melting the metal, and this proved insufficient to fill the gigantic mold. The labor of months was about to be spoiled when Cellini rose from his bed and threw into the furnace a block of tin and two hundred pewter vessels. These proved enough; the casting was a complete success; and when the work was exposed to public view (1554) it was praised as highly as any statue made in Florence since Michelangelo’s David; even Bandinelli said a good word for it.
From this climax the story descends to prosaic pages of haggling with the Duke about the fee for the Perseus. Benvenuto was long on expectations, Cosimo was short of funds. The narrative abruptly ends at 1562. It does not mention the fact, otherwise fairly well established, that in 1556 Benvenuto was twice imprisoned, apparently on charges of criminal immorality.52 In these late years Cellini composed a treatise on the goldsmith’s art—Trattato… dell’ Orificeria. Having sown wild oats for half a century, he married in 1564, and had two legitimate children to add to one illegitimate child begotten in France and five generated in Florence after his return.
Of his works—usually small enough to be readily movable—only a few can now be located and identified. The Treasury of St. Peter’s has an ornate silver candelabrum attributed to Cellini; the Bargello preserves his Narcissus and his Ganymede, both in marble, and both excellent; the Pitti has a salver and a pitcher in silver; the Louvre has his fine medallion of Bembo, and a lovely bronze relief called The Nymph of Fontainebleau; Vienna claims the saltcellar made for Francis I; the Gardner Collection in Boston has his bust of Altoviti; his large Crucifixion is in the Escorial. These scattered specimens hardly equip us to judge Cellini as an artist; they seem too slight for his fame, and even the Perseus, violent and overwrought, inclines to the baroque. Yet Clement VII (we have it on Benvenuto’s word) rated him as “the greatest artist in his craft who was ever born”;53 and an extant letter of Michelangelo to Cellini reads: “I have known you all these years as the greatest goldsmith of whom the world has ever heard.”54 We may conclude that Cellini was a genius and a ruffian, a master craftsman and a murderer, whose spirited Autobiography outshines his silver and gold and cameos, and reconciles us to the morals of our time.